In the back of the cafeteria at the AmPark Neighborhood School (P.S. 344), fourth and fifth graders were rehearsing for their performance. Thirty students worked with dancers from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. It was their last rehearsal before the show, which would begin in 30 minutes.
“You should be in your straight line,” called out one of the Alvin Ailey dancers as the students lined up to get into their places. “C’mon darlings, if you are not in line, you are not going to be onstage.”
Then, the group started going through the steps as the choreographer called instructions.
“You look to the right. You look to the left. You look up. You look center,” she said and snapped her fingers in rhythm after each directive.
“You go into single, single, double,” she added as continued snapping her fingers as students did their steps to the beat.
The rehearsal and performance that followed were part of AmPark’s afterschool program and received rave reviews from the young participants, as well as the audience.
“I learned strategies such as listening, focusing on what you are doing, standing straight when you are dancing and movement,” fifth-grader Christina Davis said just before she began the final rehearsal.
Her favorite part of being in the dance group? “Meeting some of the Alvin Ailey dancers because I really, really, really wanted to meet them so badly because they inspire me,” Christina said.
Evelyn Dickson, whose son Brandon was in the afterschool program, said his time in the dance group inspired him to research more and learn more about his culture. Dickson, who was born in London and lived in Ghana, added that she “enjoyed the whole program.”
She liked seeing how Brandon, who is in the fourth grade, and his peers got to learn how to work as a team. “I think the whole camaraderie is really lovely,” she added.
After the performance, second and third graders would be the next group of students to work with the renowned dance company. They attended the rehearsal and the show, which also served as a preview of what they could expect. Students were excited to be a part of the next group.
“I wanted to join ‘cause this is going to be cool. I’m dancing with the stars—that’s a show by the way—but it is true. They are stars. They’re professionals,” third grader Sibylla Bird said.
Her classmate Angelica Nunez agreed: “I think it’s pretty cool because they’ve been taking a long time to get this good and now they’re really good at it. I think it’s going to be really good when we try to do the same.”
Angelica added that one of her dreams is to be a singer and a dancer and the program would help her with her dancing skills and help her reach her goals.
“African-American dancing sounds very interesting and [is] very, like, hard to do. So, I want to challenge myself with learning something new,” said third-grader Tomas Yafar. He added that he’s from Colombia and has performed traditional Incan dances at the school’s talent show and was ready to try another style of dance.
Shannon Herman, who studied dance when she was a student, enrolled her son Ean in the program because she thought it would be a wonderful opportunity, and also because he enjoys dancing. “This would give him a more refined, a more academic form of dance. That way, he can learn the proper moves. He wants to be an actor one day. So, I told him you have to get it all—the dancing, the acting. You gotta be well-rounded,” Herman said, laughing.
Funding for the program came from a grant allocated by the Cultural After-School Adventure Initiative and arranged through Councilman Andrew Cohen’s office, said Christine McCourt, AmPark’s principal. She and her staff thought students would benefit from a dance program and wanted to partner with Alvin Ailey because of its work with youth, she said. The school serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Because the students chose to participate after school for two hours, twice each week, they had a strong level of commitment,” McCourt said.
They “exhibited a high level of confidence in their performance abilities. They learned and used a range of new vocabulary, and discovered a great deal about their physical abilities. In addition, they gained discipline in the areas of active listening and providing [and] responding to feedback,” she added in an email.
Herman said it was “wonderful that they are going into the schools and they’re promoting the arts.”
“Because with the educational system now, it’s very rare,” she said. “The school itself has to fight for it instead of it being an automatic… They’re really doing a good thing keeping the arts in our world. Because, it’s too much academics sometimes.”